Field guides to birding and manhole covers

Bird watching was first traced back to the Victorians, in an era when the cultural drivers of science felt the world could be best understood by mapping the world, collecting data, and harvesting enough of nature so that before long Man will control it. Ostensibly, this worked itself out in the forms of hunting and collecting. All the while, the pace of industrialization led to new optics products and field identification guides that altered the commonly held relationship of Man to nature. Over time, the killing of animals to extract knowledge fell out of favor when the data could be gathered by observation. Bird watching was and is a reflection of Man's desire to observe the nature of the Universe so that, from time to time, a glimpse of the underlying nature of the world might be caught in snatches. The essence of truth comes from the act of observing, from that first moment when one leaves the comfortable gray world of theory and discourse and goes into the field to participate and do. Those of us that are members of a technical discipline that are any good at all have experienced the sensation of being in the zone, of exiting the plane of ordinary and becoming jacked into an elevated state of being. This feeling is not unlike obsession in some ways, so those who commit themselves to birding must experience something of the sort.

Note that the first of the field guides that made this possible was published by Florence Bailey, a New Yorker born in a town that no longer exists. There's some special irony that Google Maps claims all that exists anywhere in the world of Locust Grove is some house north of Manhattan. If it ever really existed at all...

For New Yorkers like myself, bird watching never resonated with me. For most of my life the only birds I could identify by name were pigeons. All other types were background noise, critters without names and anonymous. For New Yorkers, the essential nature of the physical world isn't to be found with the birds. Unlike the Victorians who came out of adolescence in the midst of majestic wildlife, the cogs of our Universe in New York are the trains, the buses, the streets, the hydrants, traffic lights, storm drains and manholes. The accoutrements of Gotham are in sight at every turn, and while all New Yorkers gradually acclimate to their sight, sound and touch, occasionally the skin is peeled back to reveal insight into our modern world. Maybe this happens thanks to construction, or some natural disaster. But sometimes the knowledge is brought into view by accident. Today we'll spend some time looking at this most mundane of these elements, the manhole cover.

So with some delight, I unintentionally found a book written by the Queen of Manholes herself, Diane Stuart, called The Art of Manhole Covers in New York City. She may describe her calling as architectural history, but it's no less than an Audubon Society field guide for that most common of artifact, unappreciated, trodden underfoot, but each and every one guarding an interface into the underworld, potentially laying open long buried secrets. When I found this book, I felt like Gandalf himself amongst the scrolls of Minas Tirith busting open a cache of arcane knowledge.

In this most amazing of field guides, Diane Stuart carefully noted the geocoordinates of every significant manhole type, be they Flowers, Croutons, Waffles, Honeycombs, Chevrons or Herringbones. There's a moment in Genesis 2:20 where the Man gave names to each and every thing. It's said that to truly know something, you have to know its name. This urban field guide, each species of manhole is carefully, nay, lovingly documented with photos and descriptions and names. The arcane lettering and NSA-like acronymic obfuscation are revealed by Stuart's obsessive research.

What comes to light is not just iron and civic infrastructure, but also a vast history of entrepreneurship. Many of these manhole covers were manufactured when much of the country was agrarian, and these makers typically produced them on location. There was a time when enterprising foundry workers formed a startup a dozen or two at a time, shipping their manholes and promptly vanishing. If not for the signatures or advertisements stamped on these artifacts ("for any purpose", "for every need", "at Bedrock prices") there would be not a trace. The impressive and remarkble fact is the hustler DNA of entrepreneurship cuts right across time. What's revealed beneath the surface of time was a New York dotted with smitheries, fly-by-night forges and pot makers hustling to make extra cash on the side and maybe strike out a success story. It feels no different than today's New York.

And while volumes can be spoken of various episodes of the City's history, such as with the ancient manhole covers that hid the ancient pipes of the Manhattan Company water supply system that supplied by all accounts an unreliable and insufficient supply of water to New York. The Manhattan Company was a startup that pivoted by using its water revenues to propel itself into banking, first as Bank of Manhattan, and through acquisitions, became Chase Manhattan and then JP Morgan Chase, the largest bank in the world.

Other interesting manhole companies like Empire City Subway Co (now through a complex series of machinations is known as Verizon) hint at why there is so few choices for Internet in the Big Apple. The way Stuart cataloged her field guide invites participation, a field outfit and a set of exploratory gear is necessary after obtaining a copy of this book.

But the most remarkable are those manholes that even Stuart could not discover a true purpose, leaving to the readership a mysterious wonder to find and ponder. But what I do know, is beneath these humble manhole covers are hidden the mythology of the entrepreneur, the creation story of New York, and some certain truths about the nature of the Universe just waiting to be revealed, in snatches.